Sunday 18 February 2018

Wally steps out from the shadow of giants

Walter Walsh's rise doesn't surprise those who know him best, writes Dermot Crowe

NINE All-Irelands in 13 seasons -- try finding some novelty in that. But it's hard to miss. At 6' 4" and 15 stone, Walter Walsh is the hurling romance story of the week and he can still pass through many of the environs of UCD where he returned on Wednesday largely unheeded. His All-Ireland final selection was such a surprise that his sister and her boyfriend had to hurriedly book a flight home from London on the eve of the match. Owing to some unexpected delay reaching the airport, they missed it.

Terrible bad luck, Walter, you suggest.

"Ah I'm sure they were happy enough."

They surely were. Those who have seen Wally Walsh's rapid and dramatic emergence from the periphery profess little surprise at his arrival. They might admit that 2013 had been the anticipated starting point but once Walsh was named in the team, they were in no doubt; he was sufficiently versed to handle the demands. Not since Teddy McCarthy in 1986 had a player made his championship debut in an All-Ireland final. To score 1-3 and win the man of the match award made it a fairy-tale beginning and ending all in one.

There are no fairy tales, of course, in getting, even unexpectedly, to this point; just hard work, talent, good fortune and timing. Ever since Brian Cody began assembling teams he has placed an unwavering trust in what he sees in training. In this environment, a player like Wally Walsh would, in the words of his under 21 and former minor manager Richie Mulrooney, "sink or swim". And, as Mulrooney observes, he evidently swam.

The day Kilkenny met Limerick in the All-Ireland quarter-finals at Thurles an elderly gentleman seated beside a friend proudly confided in him that the Walter Walsh listed on the match programme was "Wally Walsh, my grandson". He added that he was rifling goals off Jackie Tyrrell in training. It was meant as no disrespect to Jackie, quite the opposite, but the mythology had started to grow. Once Walsh showed he could survive in the Kilkenny training matches, it was only a matter of time.

And so Kilkenny finished another bumper harvest cultivating a new hero and saluting an old one. Henry Shefflin collected his ninth medal after a truly majestic summer at 33, while Wally Walsh picked up his first in his first senior match of any description at 21. When Henry won his first in 2000, Wally was nine years old. Somewhere in Kilkenny, no doubt, there's a young lad of similar impressionability absorbing the latest success and the characters who fashioned it. The cycle goes on.

Twenty years ago, when Wally was one, Christy Heffernan's career ended with an All-Ireland medal against Cork. Valid comparisons have already been drawn between Walsh and Heffernan although Richie Mulrooney sees more of Martin Comerford, citing Walsh's vision as one of his valuable attributes. Neither former player is a poor reference for a young man who will now be a great deal more scrutinised but has the potential to enjoy a lengthy and memorable career. There are no guarantees, naturally, and the quip about Brian Cody telling Walsh he would see him at the Walsh Cup has more than a grain of practical truth to it. No dining out on past glories. Even now, only a week later, the All-Ireland is a past event.

Walsh is a grounded lad in any event and won't be losing the run of himself. After enjoying the homecoming on Monday night and a trip

to James Stephens the evening after, he was already focusing on an important intermediate club match for Tullogher-Rosbercon against Emeralds scheduled on the following Saturday.

Not exactly the Mardi Gras of celebrations but it is Kilkenny. There was probably less restraint in the toasts being proposed in his honour in Tullogher. Delighted and surprised reaction to his selection prompted a late run on tickets; even the player himself confessed he didn't see it coming.

Mulrooney felt it was on the cards though. Mulrooney had Walsh as a minor in 2008 and 2009, and also at under 21 level for three years. After his display in the recent All-Ireland under 21 final, and from what he was hearing of him from training, he reckoned he stood a great chance of selection. He has seen him mature into a top-class hurler from a towering 17-year-old with buckets of promise.

"Early in 2008 we had trials for the minor team -- Kilkenny hadn't won a minor All-Ireland for five years -- and Walter would have played in those trials at 17. He had his first game in the All-Ireland semi-final against Tipperary and he scored 2-1, against a team that was expected to win three in a row; they had several players left over from the previous year that won the All-Ireland. The first time he started was that game and he scored 2-1. He played full-forward in the final when we defeated Galway.

"This year has obviously seen tremendous improvement in him, I would never have doubted him and always expected he would make it simply because for a huge man he has an incredible first touch, and is a really good and well-rounded young man. I could not speak highly enough of him. Even in the under-21 All-Ireland final, he came to centre-forward in the middle part of the first half when we were in trouble against Clare, it was really Walter who led that comeback. In the second half he slipped turning for goal and turned his ankle and really wasn't capable of leading from there to the finish."

Rugby also had a tug on his affections and he was good enough to be called for Leinster trials. At five, his mother took him across the Barrow to nearby New Ross where his uncles had played. But he says that hurling was always his primary interest and the desire to hurl with Kilkenny remained undimmed. "When he first came into the panel officially in May or June 2008," says Mulrooney, "he mentioned he was going very well at rugby. I flippantly said, 'that's okay, but we are only concerned about hurling'. That was Tuesday night and on Thursday he said -- maybe after he had a discussion at home -- that it wouldn't be a problem."

The parish of Tullogher sits on the Wexford border in south Kilkenny, next to the neighbouring parishes of Inistioge, Mullinavat and Glenmore. In 1963, Tullogher contested a senior hurling championship final, losing to St Lachtains, but most of their time has been spent in junior hurling. It has not been a traditional factory for county hurlers. For the first 50 years the club focused entirely on football. Fierce contests with rivals Glenmore were commonplace. Locals tell of matches held in New Ross where Wexford people would attend expecting to see a wild row. They weren't often disappointed.

Wally Walsh's maternal grandfather Philly Murphy played in the 1963 county final at full-back. His wife Eily and their daughter, Walter's mother Anna, were noted camogie players. None blazed the trail Wally is blazing now but family interest in hurling didn't begin with Wally. A local man tells of an uncle of Wally's reaction when Eddie Keher grounded John Doyle in the 1967 All-Ireland final. Tipp had held a tyrannical reign over Kilkenny since the 1920s and Doyle was an epic embodiment of that Tipp rule.

With Doyle on the floor, the uncle's excitement could not be contained. "Stand on him," he roared down to Keher. Wally's paternal grandfather, also Wally, is remembered for a record drive of 277 yards in a golf driving competition in New Ross in the 1960s when the equipment was a great deal more basic than now. Wally's father John is also a big man who played football and hurling for Tullogher-Rosbercon.

Jamesie Murphy is from the same parish and a former hurling referee and Tullogher hurler. "I suppose there is great satisfaction that he came up trumps. And when he did produce the goods everyone felt a sense of pride in him and the parish which produced him. A most unassuming chap. One of the lads I was golfing with yesterday was in the supermarket and women were discussing him as they were going round with the trolleys. 'Oh that Walter Walsh, isn't he a lovely chap, isn't he well able to carry himself'."

Wally Walsh isn't the first All-Ireland senior medal winner from Tullogher parish, but he is the first to win one as a playing member of the club. John P Phelan won an All-Ireland in football in 1893 with the Wexford team Young Irelands. A few years later, Paddy Icy Lanigan won All-Ireland hurling medals after he had left Tullogher to play in the city. Tullogher's Phil Murphy played for Kilkenny in the senior championship against Wexford in the 1950s but Wally Walsh's feats are rare in his homeplace.

When the final whistle blew on Sunday last, Wally Walsh was able to find his grandfather Philly, his mother Anna and young sister Jane, who is nine. They all stood for a photograph. Photographic evidence is therefore available if he ever needs proof that what had happened wasn't all a dream. It has been, as he said himself, all a bit surreal.

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